2016 QMJHL Draft preview: Halifax has control of their destiny with first overall pick

·Mike Sanderson
The Halifax Mooseheads could select forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx, seen here checking USA defenceman Mattias Samuelsson into the boards at the Youth Olympic Games in Norway in February, with the first pick in the 2016 QMJHL Entry Draft in Charlottetown Saturday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Al Tielemans/IOC via AP)
The Halifax Mooseheads could select forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx, seen here checking USA defenceman Mattias Samuelsson into the boards at the Youth Olympic Games in Norway in February, with the first pick in the 2016 QMJHL Entry Draft in Charlottetown Saturday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Al Tielemans/IOC via AP)

The Halifax Mooseheads have an important decision to make.

Do they go with the consensus number-one pick; the son of a prolific now-former Gatineau Olympiques head coach, a star power forward who could develop into a top line center?

Or do they go with the potential number one blueliner; a hometown kid who could keep the tickets coming in and let the marketing staff take the day off while the money rolls in? Oh, and he’s also good at hockey, possibly as good as the other guy?

That is the debate for the Mooseheads between Benoît-Olivier Groulx and Jared McIsaac, Do they go forward or defenceman with the top pick in the 2016 QMJHL Entry Draft Saturday at the Eastlink Centre in Charlottetown?

Either pick will be a good one for Halifax, who finished their scorched earth portion of their rebuild and start fresh with a young team and a new coach in André Tourigny. Groulx is ranked number one in the league’s central scouting list, but there is speculation that the Truro blueliner McIsaac may be the player the Mooseheads are zeroing in on.

Groulx had 51 points in 41 games for L’Intrepide de Gatineau this season at the Quebec midget AAA level, and added seven points in 10 playoff games. He’s been most commonly compared to current Cape Breton Screaming Eagle Pierre-Luc Dubois.

McIsaac is a do-it-all blueliner with size and speed, coming in at 6’2” and 209 pounds on draft day. He had 36 points in 33 games for the Cole Harbour Wolfpack in the Nova Scotia Major Midget Hockey League. Scouts say he most resembles former Moncton Wildcat and Shawinigan Cataracte Brandon Gormley at his age with his poise and solid two-way play.

He has also stated that he will not report to the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, who pick second. He would join the Mooseheads or the Drummondville Voltigeurs, who pick third.

The two players were teammates on Team Canada at the Youth Olympic Games in February in Lillehammer, Norway, collecting silver medals for their trouble.

Behind the Mooseheads at pick number two is the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, who run into a debate if Groulx goes number one. The Drakkar have said they will react to first pick and take the best player available, be it Groulx, McIsaac or others, possibly forward Gabriel Fortier, younger brother of Maxime with the Mooseheads ranked third, or goaltender Olivier Rodrigue, ranked fourth, and one of two goaltenders ranked in the first round.

They’ve also said the pick is available for the right price.

There are rumours that Halifax or the Saint John Sea Dogs are trying to move up to snag the second overall pick and take McIsaac.

The Mooseheads are loaded with picks in the first three rounds, with the first, seventh and 16th picks in the first round, two second rounders and three third rounders, and if they come away with both top players after Saturday, all would agree that Cam Russell and co. would be the winners of the day.

The Drakkar also have three first rounders, picking at two, 14 and 15. If they aren’t sold on McIsaac or another prospect at second overall, they could trade down and get some extra picks, including another first rounder, but Drakkar GM Steve Ahern has said they have no issues selecting with the pick, so it could take quite an offer to make him budge.

The Sherbrooke Phoenix sit in fourth and the Acadie-Bathurst Titan round out the top five.

The most intriguing prospect this time around was the second-most intriguing prospect last season. Shane Bowers will be re-entering the draft this season after being taken fourth overall last year by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.

The Eagles will get the ninth overall pick as compensation for releasing him outright, giving them two picks in the opening round with their original selection at 13th. He is the most ready-made player available in the draft, and rumours are circulating that Halifax and Saint John are looking to make a play for him, either trading up or selecting him with a pick. Those were among the teams he was believed to be open to joining last season.

Bowers, a Halifax native, spurned the Screaming Eagles last season in favour of the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL, potting 33 points in 56 games, adding two assists in nine playoff games. As an overager by draft standards, he is unranked in the Q’s central scouting list, but he was ranked number three on the league’s scouting list a year ago, before Joe Veleno was declared eligible as an exceptional status player as the clock struck midnight. HockeyProspect.com has Bowers at fourth overall.

Cape Breton has had rotten luck with getting players to report. They have had first rounders in 2013 (Nicolas Roy), 2014 (Michael O’Leary) and 2015 ignore the team, either asking for a trade in the case of Roy, or opting for the NCAA route, in the case of O’Leary. Bowers is a wildcard, but a year-long standoff with a QMJHL team indicates he probably will go NCAA, since that is too long just to wait for a more-desired team to save him.

To his credit, Bowers has tweeted that he would like to return for a second season in Waterloo.

In speaking of “playing the NCAA card”, a few scouts, especially in la belle province, believe several of the top maritime prospects will be opting for the college route, as this cycle continues every year.

McIsaac has said he will not report to Baie-Comeau, while fellow Haligonian Andrew Coxhead, ranked fifth, and Logan Cash, sitting in 22nd spot, are doing the same, according to Pierre Cholette, chief scout of the Victoriaville Tigres, who could look at Cash as a reach pick with their selection at 17th.

Fortier is third on the league’s list, playing last season with Lac St-Louis in Montreal. He had 47 points in 41 games with the Lions, adding a monster playoff with 18 points in 17 games. Some scouts have said his offensive game is better than Groulx’s and that he has climbed himself into the first overall conversation. Worth noting that the folks at HockeyProspect have him at 8th on their top prospects list.

Rodrigue is the top goalie available, after a solid year with the Jonquière Elites in Quebec midget AAA. A .923 save percentage holds up very good in 26 appearances, and .911 in four playoff games is nothing to shake a stick at either. Some scouts were surprised when the other goaltender ranked in round one, 10th-ranked Alexis Gravel of the Mississauga Senators, beat him out for Team Canada’s starting job at the Youth Olympic Games, but Rodrigue has bounced back.

The fifth- and sixth- ranked players on the league’s list are maritimers, Coxhead and Anderson MacDonald. Coxhead is believed to be on Halifax’s radar at seven, and they may move up to get him, while MacDonald could land with his hometown Sea Dogs, who pick at 11th, or the Wildcats at eighth spot. Another maritimer, eighth-ranked Noah Dobson, is believed to be a Moncton favourite with that eighth selection. Dobson played in Austria this season with EC Red Bull Salzburg, the only first rounder ranked who played outside of Canada.

Blueliners Jeremy Bucheler and Xavier Bouchard, son of Rouyn-Noranda Huskies head coach Gilles,round up the top ten, sitting at seventh and ninth, respectively. HockeyProspect.com has Mathias Laferrière ranked fifth on their top 200 prospects list, while the league puts him at 11th.

The top ranked Newfoundlander is forward Matt McKim, who sits in 31st on the league’s list, a mid-second round pick. He played last season at York Simcoe.

It is worth noting that American players are not ranked among the QMJHL’s list, merely included on their own list among eligible players at the bottom. It is unclear who the top-ranked players would be south of the border, but there isn’t any scuttlebutt on high profile Yanks making the jump up to the Great White North.

The Voltigeurs hold two picks in the first round, the third and 12th picks. The hometown Charlottetown Islanders sit in the 18th spot, while the Gatineau Olympiques, Quebec Remparts, Val-d’Or Foreurs, Rimouski Oceanic and Shawinigan Cataractes don’t have a first rounder. Expect Quebec to remedy that situation before picks are announced Saturday, while the other four teams pay the piper for contending teams in previous seasons.

The other wild business is the trading period opening up for a brief two-day window for teams to trade on the draft floor and complete the back-room deals they agreed to in mid-season last year. Players like Sherbrooke Phoenix blueliner Jérémy Roy has already been confirmed to be on the move, among other players who will be announced starting Friday at 9 AM eastern time. The trading period closes at the end of the draft Saturday.

Reportedly, prices for players are steep, much like they seemed to be during the mid-season trading period last season. The quick turnaround for trading creates a hectic environment for deals to be made.

One further name to keep track of is Titan captain Guillaume Brisebois, who asked for a trade last month from the team. The 19-year-old could fetch a solid price for Acadie-Bathurst, who could look for picks or players in an effort to continue their rebuilding progress next season with a still-young nucleus.

Follow the picks as they happen on the QMJHL website.

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